The furore surrounding the launch of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's first book, Lean In, coincided with the very worst stages of my morning sickness. While she advocated that women should 'lean in to' their careers, I was doing less of a lean and more of an exhausted slump, squashed like a concertina into an ill-fitting office chair.
Struck as I was by the kind of tiredness that makes you feel like an observer of your own life, Sandberg's assertions sounded less like encouragement and more like a reproach. After all, attributing the shameful lack of women in senior positions to their lack of ambition, rather than tackling the complex structural and cultural barriers restricting their progress, is a much simpler solution.
Of course, Sandberg's argument is far more complex than the initial media response suggested. At the core of it is the failure of workplaces to offer the flexibility and access to childcare and parental leave that are necessary to pursue a career while raising children. She writes: 'Many girls growing up today watched their mothers try to "do it all" and then decided something had to give. That was usually their careers'.
As Sandberg notes, framing the issue as 'work-life balance' - as if the two were diametrically opposed - practically ensures that work will lose out when it comes to the crunch. Who would ever choose 'work' over 'life'? Especially when women working full-time are still paid an average 15% less per hour than men. In the UK, women face wage penalties for time out of the labour market as well, with mothers' average earnings decreasing by roughly 13% per child.
'If society truly valued the work of caring for children, companies would find ways to reduce these steep penalties and help parents combine career and family responsibilities,' writes Sandberg.
We exist in a world where the lines between personal and professional are becoming blurred. Company cultures where work and life are in opposition are increasingly out of step.
- What brands should know about Lean In.
The myth of having it all
Sharon Poczter, professor of economics at Cornell, explains: 'The antiquated rhetoric of "having it all" disregards the basis of every economic relationship: the idea of trade-offs. All of us are... attempting to maximise our utility based on parameters like career (and) kids... doing our best to allocate the resource of time. Due to the scarcity of this, none of us can "have it all" and those who claim to are mostly lying.'
The end of public vs private
'I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work. I no longer think people have a professional self for Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time,' writes Sandberg. 'That type of separation probably never existed, and in today's era of individual expression, where people constantly update their Facebook status and tweet their every move, it makes less sense.'
Get off the ladder
The days of joining an organisation and climbing the 'career ladder' are gone. In the face of employees resigning with burnout, McKinsey's Larry Kanarek urged staff to take more control of their careers. Counterintuitively, success at work often depends on not trying to meet every demand placed on us.
Nicola Kemp is Marketing's head of features. Follow her on Twitter @nickykc